Punyakoti: Old tale turned into 1st full length animation film in Sanskrit

Punyakoti, animation film in Sanskrit
Seven years ago, Ravishankar Venkateswaran, then an employee of Infosys, heard a story from a colleague during a bus ride to their campus near Bengaluru. It was the story of Punyakoti the cow, drawn from a well-known Kannada folk song called “Govina Haadu” (The Cow’s Song), which is in turn based on a story from the Mahabharata. As he heard the narration, his mind rapidly added background, characters and locations.

 
Ravishankar had long been obsessed with making an animation film, and he had found the story for his dream project. On March 25, 2020, which was Ugadi, or the Kannada New Year, the animation film titled Punyakoti was released online in the United States and Canada, after years of heartbreak, crowdfunding and the director’s single-minded perseverance. On March 31, Netflix added the film to its platform. It won four awards at the Annual Animation Network Awards in Mumbai.

 
That would be a heartwarming story in itself, but for another unique feature of the project — it is the first full-length animation film in Sanskrit. Ravishankar says he discovered the language only in his 40s, during a Sanskrit workshop at Infosys. He was immediately awed by its beauty and decided to combine his two passions for Punyakoti.

 
In an interview from Bengaluru, he says, “The person who was teaching us Sanskrit said there are not many contemporary works in the language and people think it is only for scriptures. So I thought, anyway I want to make a movie, why not make it in Sanskrit? It would stand out, and there would be no competition.”

 
It was not easy to raise funds for such a niche project. Ravishankar approached former Infosys executive Mohandas Pai, who offered support and advised him to try crowdfunding. He ended up with over 450 donors from around the world. Ravishankar worked with animators based in five Indian cities, as well as in Romania and Brazil. “We used to connect through Google Hangouts, share our screens and start working scene by scene. I’ve not even met some of them.”

Ravishankar Venkateswaran (left) with music legend Ilaiyaraja
Punyakoti is based on the story of a touching encounter between a cow and a hungry tiger that wants to eat it. Ravishankar also weaves in a morality tale about the dangers of reckless development and deforestation. He used what he calls the “satvik storytelling” style for the script. “It is a very calm way of telling a story, unlike this high drama that we are all used to,” he explains. The design was inspired by the geometric, modular puppet-style prevalent across South India.

The project received generous help from unexpected quarters. Ravishankar was acquainted with music legend Ilaiyaraja, who offered to compose the score after hearing the story. Another big catch was actor Revathy, who was introduced by a friend’s relative, and went out of her way to help, voicing the title role. “She came to Bengaluru on her own for the dubbing. When I asked if I could at least pay for her flight, she turned around and gave me some money for the movie,” he recalls.

 
Revathy tells Business Standard that Punyakoti was a film close to her heart: “I have always enjoyed being part of any new experiment in cinema. I felt challenged to learn Sanskrit again after Class VIII and it felt really good. The story of Punyakoti is something I relate to as it talks about the environment and our lack of responsibility towards it.”

 
The film has landed online with impeccable timing when many families are stuck at home due to the Covid-19 crisis. Its North American premiere on Vimeo got over 4,000 views. The moving force behind the premiere was Harsh Thakkar, honorary president of Samskrita Bharati Canada, a non-profit that works to promote Sanskrit. “There are probably thousands of kids in Canada and the US who are learning Sanskrit as a spoken language, and we wanted to bring it to them. Now people are anyway home, away from school, and it worked out very well,” says Thakkar, who lives in Mississauga near Toronto.

 
Ravishankar, now a vice-president at an investment bank, has already received an offer from an animation studio to write a script for a film on Swami Vivekananda. For now, he is savouring the fulfilment of a promise he had made to himself all these years about his dream project: “Sheeghrameva aagamishyati” (Coming Soon).

 


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